Assisted-suicide statute challenged by 2 Connecticut doctors

The lawsuit argues that "aid in dying" is not assisted suicide and physicians who hasten terminally ill patients' deaths should not have to fear punishment.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Oct. 19, 2009

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Two New England physicians are taking on a state law they argue interferes with their ability to prescribe life-ending doses of medication to terminally ill patients who request it.

Gary Blick, MD, an HIV/AIDS specialist in Norwalk, Conn., and Ronald M. Levine, MD, an internist in Greenwich, Conn., in October filed a legal challenge to the state's assisted-suicide statute, saying the threat of punishment prevents them from prescribing lethal doses of medication.

Dr. Blick said that since he started practicing in 1987, he has received numerous requests for lethal prescriptions from terminally ill patients with "agonizing pain" and poor quality of life. "I always tell them I can't do that -- I could be tried for manslaughter."

"For anyone who is terminally ill, who is mentally competent, for whom we know there's no hope, who has lost quality of life and is in chronic pain, we can help them to die with dignity," said Dr. Blick, medical and research director of the HIV/AIDS clinic Circle Medical. "That's what we call aid in dying. This is not assisted suicide."

The lawsuit seeks the legal answer to whether doctor-aided death constitutes assisted suicide. State law says a person is guilty of second-degree manslaughter if "he intentionally causes or aids another person, other than by force, duress or deception, to commit suicide."

The legal complaint argues that " 'aid in dying' is a recognized term of medical art" and "may, in the professional judgment of a physician, be a medically and ethically appropriate course of treatment."

"A careful, straightforward reading of the statute would cause the court to say that the statute doesn't address [physician-assisted suicide] and that the Legislature could address it if it wanted to but hasn't done so yet," said Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based nonprofit group that advocates legalizing doctor-aided dying. She represents the plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit represents a novel approach in the long-running effort to make physician-assisted suicide legal. Previous lawsuits have argued that patients have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.

That claim has been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and several state courts. The Montana Supreme Court in September heard arguments in the appeal of a December 2008 lower court ruling that held the state's constitutional guarantees "encompass the right of a competent mentally ill patient to die with dignity." A decision is expected by year's end.

Connecticut judges sympathetic to terminally ill patients' plight but afraid to assert a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide might find the new lawsuit's argument appealing, said Robert Burt, professor of law at Yale Law School. He opposes physician-assisted suicide.

"It's not a crazy position," Burt said of the legal argument in the case. "As a matter of English language, though, it's not very convincing. It looks gimmicky."

Other physician-assisted suicide opponents assailed the lawsuit.

"The argument is to replace assisted suicide with a euphemistic advocacy term in the statute," said Wesley J. Smith, senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's an amazing and hubristic idea."

Connecticut Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane is the lead defendant in the case. His office did not respond to a request for comment by this article's deadline.

The Connecticut State Medical Society is not a party to the lawsuit and has not yet taken a position on the case, said Ken Ferrucci, the society's vice president of public policy and government affairs. The organization does "welcome any legal clarity that may result from the ruling," he said.

American Medical Association policy opposes physician-assisted suicide because the practice is "fundamentally inconsistent with the physician's role as healer."

Only Oregon and Washington allow physician-assisted suicide.

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Case at a glance

Does a statute punishing assisted suicide apply to doctors who order lethal prescriptions?

Two physicians have filed suit against Connecticut seeking clarification on whether providing "aid in dying" would subject them to risk of criminal prosecution.

Impact: The physician plaintiffs argue that the state's assisted suicide criminal statute wrongly prevents them and other doctors from using their medical skills to help mentally competent, terminally ill patients die with dignity. If Connecticut judges agree, the case could give advocates of physician-assisted suicide legalization another avenue to pursue in other states with similar criminal laws.

Blick v. Connecticut, Hartford Judicial District Superior Court, Hartford, Conn.

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